According to NY Times accounts, Wal-Mart has decided to cut shoplifters a bit of slack. If you’re under 18 or over 65, and try to swipe merchandise under $25 (and it’s your first time being caught by Wal-Mart security), they’ll give you a tough lecture and send you packing. Why the generosity? The article suggests – and this is surely true – that the local infrastructure (i.e., the cops and local prosecutors) don’t like to foot the bill for enforcing shoplifting laws. This raises some interesting questions. First, should shoplifting be a crime? Probably, if only because if allowed to grow, it would (in aggregate) devastate retailing. Second, who should bear the cost of shoplifting enforcement? Perhaps the right answer is the retailer. Offenders are the logical payors, but they are often too poor to bear actual costs. And while society at large could pay the cost (and does, right now), it seems to me that it would be easier to impose the tax on the retailer. Why? Because, in many respects, the retailer is in the best position to reduce theft. Cameras, good layout, ever-present security all help reduce attempted thefts. If stores see that they save more than mere shrinkage by stopping shoplifting, perhaps they’ll introduce those preventive steps.
In my experience, shoplifting cases are a major source of docket junk in criminal courts. DA’s typically don’t care much about them. The victims – and there are real victims – are mostly corporations, and these corporations don’t get exercised like other victims. To the DA, the company’s face is the security guard who shows up to testify – and he or she is usually a low-paid worker bee who doesn’t much care the outcome of the case.
Sounds to me like Wal-Mart is just trying to get along better with the local community. Perhaps they should talk to Target, a leader in the national fight against crime, for tips.